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More than words: Realising a corporate culture driven by gratitude.

Have you ever experienced that too? Companies that make you work hard for a whole year and as a 'thank you' you get an annual event where you are obliged to listen to the founder's endless speech. No wonder people drink a bit more during such outings; the speeches usually don't do the trick and neither does sincere gratitude.



I have absolutely nothing against company events; I have more trouble with poorly prepared speeches. But honestly, leaders and companies can do so much more to express genuine gratitude to their employees. In the hustle and bustle of the day, these gestures sometimes take a back seat, when in reality they are simple acts that can mean and deliver a huge amount.


Playful ways to show gratitude in the workplace

A company's culture is crucial to the well-being of its employees and its overall success. Unfortunately, there is still a group of managers who believe that paying a salary is enough as a token of appreciation. However, for those who understand that showing genuine gratitude goes beyond financial compensation, there are plenty of creative ways.


Handing out personalized awards

I remember one of my former companies where we organized an annual award ceremony. This involved handing out ten bottles of champagne, each with a special award label. All employees had the opportunity to nominate a colleague for various awards, such as:


  1. The Colleague Award: For the person who behaved most collegially.

  2. The Funny Award: Awarded to the person with the greatest sense of humor.

  3. The Fool Award: For that one colleague who may have made a mistake, but who we could all laugh at.

  4. The Speedy Gonzales Award: For the employee who was the most productive that year.

In addition, we encouraged people to suggest their own categories based on exceptional achievements or events that year. Once, for instance, the 'Travel Award' was given to an employee who had visited customers on six different continents within one week.


Most importantly, these awards not only recognise achievements but also the unique qualities and contributions of each individual. In this way, they create an atmosphere of appreciation and camaraderie within the team.


Making playful bets

Within our working environment, we have always valued humor and recognized the efforts of our employees. An illustrative example of this was the conclusion of playful bets. A newcomer to the team immediately had to work several evenings overtime due to tight deadlines, which was typical for an advertising agency like ours. Half-jokingly, he remarked that if he had to sustain these working hours for 10 years, he did expect a special gift. On a whim, I promised him a Mercedes.


A decade later, we decided to 'keep this promise'. We bought an old, run-down Mercedes and placed it under a canvas in front of the entrance to our office. We invited the unsuspecting employee and ceremoniously unveiled his 'promised' gift. His reaction was golden: "I knew it," he said, clearly disappointed but sporting a smile.


But the highlight came a few seconds later when his wife and their two children came driving around the corner in a luxury Mercedes. The relief and joy on his face was priceless.


Handwritten cards and messages

In a company where I was an ad-interim Marketing Director, times were challenging. To turn the tide, we decided on a radical change of direction and introduced a new platform: 'TheONE'. The whole concept revolved around unity, individuality, and appreciation. With slogans like 'We Are The ONE' and 'You Are The ONE', we wanted to convey a message of connection and recognition.


Small, thoughtful gestures made a big difference. For instance, we placed stickers on the mirrors in the toilets that read 'You're the Beautiful One', putting a smile on employees' faces during daily routines. At the entrance to the office, a sign with the words 'You're The One Who's Always Welcome' was hung, to give everyone a feeling of appreciation and welcome as soon as they enter.


A special initiative was the introduction of cards for all executives. These cards featured the text 'You're The ONE that...', after which the leader could add a personal message. These cards were then sent to the employee's home address, so the appreciation was not limited to the workplace, but was also felt at home.


Original feedback sessions

At a time when giving and receiving feedback can often be formal and sometimes even a tad stressful, we always take a fresh and innovative approach. Instead of traditional feedback sessions, we usually decide to give it a fun twist.


For some such meetings, we had T-shirts printed. Each shirt featured the company logo, the wearer's name, and a motivational quote. After a brief introduction and putting on the shirts, we introduced the actual plan for the new employees: a feedback session with a creative twist.


As soon as the music started, employees walked around with markers. Everyone's task was to write positive feedback or a compliment on the backs of their colleagues. To make it even more fun, we encouraged everyone to add small drawings or illustrations as well. The beauty of this was that you did not immediately see what others wrote about you, which provided an exciting and surprising element.


At intervals to give everyone a chance to leave a message with everyone, we continued until everyone's shirt was full. The result? A unique T-shirt full of personal compliments and positive feedback for every employee, regardless of interpersonal relationships.


Personal power animals from Shamanism

In many cultures and spiritual traditions, including shamanism, animals are believed to carry powers and messages that can help guide or inspire people. These power animals, or spiritual guides, represent certain traits or life lessons that resonate with individuals.

Shamanism looks beyond the physical aspect of animals and delves deeper into the spiritual and symbolic meanings they carry. Take the crocodile, for example. Its message is:


I take life as it is. There is no good or bad. Everything is an experience. Sometimes I move with it. Sometimes I hold on and sometimes I let go. I trust my primal instinct and intuition and know when to hold on or let go. With my powerful jaws, tail, and skin I lie still in the water... I take everything as it comes for now and also for later.

Finding a personal power animal for each employee that reflects their character and work attitude is an innovative way to show appreciation and understanding. Sharing the description and meaning of the power animal with the employee gives them a mirror. This can lead to self-reflection and a deeper understanding of their own qualities and challenges.


Moreover, handing over a symbol or image of the power animal can serve as a lasting reminder of this appreciation and recognition. Not only does the employee feel seen and appreciated for who they really are, but it can also help promote personal growth and development.


Surprise moments

Sometimes a colleague makes a special impression, and this deserves recognition. In my view, it is important for leaders and colleagues to be mindful of this.


Take, for instance, the spontaneous birthday cakes that are brought. Similarly, as a surprise, you can suddenly turn off the lights and show a nice video or photo collage about what the colleague has done.


It is valuable, though, not to base these surprise moments solely on business achievements. This shows that you appreciate not only the professional side but also the human side in the workplace.


At our company, for instance, we use anniversaries to show our appreciation. We make small booklets with photo collages, personal anecdotes, and sometimes even poems or drawings. This is a warm way of showing how much we appreciate our colleagues.


Costume day

In all my ventures, I have organized many different events and activities. But one thing that has always been high on my wish list, but which I have never done, is to organize a 'costume day'.


The idea is that employees blindly draw a note from a jar with a colleague's name on it, without knowing whose name it is. Then, on the agreed dress-up day, they come to work dressed as that particular colleague.


The role of leaders in creating a culture of compliments

There are an infinite number of ways in which you can show gratitude as a leader, but ultimately it comes down to whether you as a leader pay attention to the individual. Do you see the performance or do you also see the person behind the employee?

Here are some attitudes that are essential:


Empathy: A leader must be able to empathize with the feelings and needs of his employees. This helps make appreciation genuine and meaningful.


Authenticity: The gratitude of a leader must be authentic and genuine. Employees quickly sense when a 'thank you' is more of a routine than genuine appreciation.


Proactivity: Don't wait for special occasions. A leader must be alert to daily achievements and moments to show gratitude.


Listening: Really understanding what employees are saying (and not only listening) helps leaders understand where and when gratitude is most needed and effective.


Visibility: Leaders should regularly move among their teams, not only to show their presence but also to have direct interactions and moments of gratitude.


Consistency: Gratitude should be shown regularly and consistently, not only during peak moments or after great achievements.


Education: Leaders should emphasize the importance of gratitude and encourage team members to do the same. This can be done through training, workshops, or simply by example.


Openness to feedback: Leaders should be open to feedback from their team on how they show appreciation and be willing to adjust their approach if necessary.


Inclusiveness: Make sure everyone, regardless of their role, position, or background, feels valued. This may mean finding different ways to show gratitude that suit the unique needs and desires of various team members.


Adaptability: Employees' needs and expectations can change. An effective leader recognizes these changes and adapts his or her approach to gratitude accordingly.


By embracing these attitudes, leaders can create a working environment where gratitude is not only expressed but deeply felt and appreciated by all employees.


But perhaps the first step is for leaders to also reflect on their own behavior and attitudes. Do you ever ask yourself, "How do I show gratitude? Do I do this often enough? How can I improve?"

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